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Wildlife service lists Gopher tortoise as candidate for protection

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • Limited resources will delay action at this time, the Fish and Wildlife Service says
  • The agency says it hopes conservation efforts will increase
  • Gopher tortoises live in sandy soil, ranging from South Carolina to Louisiana

(CNN) -- The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has added more populations of the Gopher tortoise to a growing list of species eligible for protection under the Endangered Species Act, but limited resources will prevent the agency from doing more at this time.

"When you have a species like the Gopher tortoise that has a lot of potential habitat it can cost more than $300,000 to develop a (protection) proposal," said Chuck Underwood, a spokesman for the Florida division of the agency. "It's on the list, it needs to be listed, but it really is in the bottom third of the priority."

Candidates eligible for wildlife protection are ranked by priority from one to 12, where 12 is the lowest priority and one, the highest. The Gopher tortoise is placed at eight.

Despite the low ranking, federal agencies will have to consider the environmental impact construction will have on the Gopher tortoise, Underwood said. If conditions for the tortoise change, the agency will re-evaluate its standing on the list.

The population of Gopher tortoises found east of Mobile Bay, Alabama, will be considered candidates for endangered species protection for a range of reasons, including habitat loss and degradation and predation, the agency said in a statement.

Gopher tortoises found west of the Tombigee River in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana are already listed as a threatened population, but Tuesday's announcement marks the first time the agency considered the population at large.

Cynthia Dohner, southeast regional director for the wildlife service, said the agency hopes the new designation will increase protection and conservation efforts in states where the tortoises are found.

The new designation covers the Gopher tortoise population in portions of Alabama, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.

After completing a year-long review of the tortoise's condition in the eastern range, the agency declared it a candidate for protection. Wildlife and environmental conservation groups had filed a petition to extend protection to the tortoises in 2006.

The agency describes the gopher tortoise as a large, dark-brown tortoise with a tough shell and large hind feet. They need "deep, sandy soils in which to burrow" and "open sunny sites for nesting," the wildlife agency said. The tortoises can live longer than 50 years, but according to the wildlife service, younger generations are suffering low reproductive rates.

"The real challenge now is to fine tune on-the-ground management and reach out to more private landowners, who can have a profound impact on recovery for all species in this ecosystem," Dohner said.

The agency said it can provide competitive matching grants to private landowners and states that launch conservation efforts on behalf of the tortoise and other candidate species.

CNN's Chelsea Bailey contributed to this report.